Are You Really Listening?

June 26, 2016


A few days ago, I was standing in a line at a convenience store where I was held hostage to the various conversations around me.  One such conversation was more fascinating to me than the others.  In the course of 5 minutes, an exchange between two individuals reinforced multiple life and business lessons on the importance of listening.

In a Harvard Business Review Article written nearly six decades ago, entitled Listening to People, the authors Nichols and Stevens recorded comments made by participants in an executive seminar on listening.  One participant noted that "..... I had never thought of listening as an important subject by itself. But now that I am aware of it, I think that perhaps 80% of my work depends on my listening to someone, or on someone else listening to me.”  This was hardly a revelation, however the exchange between the individuals at that convenience store confirmed how far we can fall short of this skill.  


One of the individuals in line at that store had run into who appeared to be a friend, and was attempting to share a sad story of her husband's medical challenges. Apparently the husband was scheduled for a series of tests and follow ups in an attempt to get to the bottom of some illness.  The other individual  - the listener - with whom this was being shared, was barely making eye contact.  The listener's arms were folded and she was rocking back and forth as if to some song in her head.  The woman's sad story became even sadder as she shared the fact that her husband had been delayed from seeing the last doctor because the doctor was in an unfortunate car accident!  To that piece of information, the listener said "oh, great...nice."  Nice?  Was that sarcasm, or had she not even grasped the gravity of the situation?  Who knows.  After a few minutes, the listener abandoned any pretense of interest, glancing over her shoulder to comment on the price of a bottle of ketchup nearby.  Appalling.


As I stood there listening (or eavesdropping!) on their exchange, I began to think about the importance of listening - in all walks of life.  All relationships are built on the foundations of communication.  In my experience, each time something runs off course in any relationship - personal or professional - it is usually attributable to a breakdown in communication, often involving some distortion in listening.


The power of listening cannot be overstated.  Whether to demonstrate compassion to a friend (something the individual on line in the convenience store sorely lacked) or the need to absorb critical information about an organizational transformation - listening is both an art and a science.


Here are four strategies for improving your listening skills which can be applied with friends and family, as well as in business settings.


Employ the dual roles of eye contact and active body language: Everyone deserves the courtesy of strong and sincere eye contact.  How else can a meaningful connection be made with the speaker?  Even speakers addressing an audience of hundreds of people appreciate listeners who appear engaged and locked in through eye contact.  Beyond that, active body language (nodding, leaning in) provides encouragement to a speaker who may be struggling to get a point across.


Listen to what is, and isn't, being said:  An effective listener is continually weighing and assessing the content, tone and inferences in what the speaker is saying. This may require what we describe as 'reading between the lines' to understand nuances and important information subtly being conveyed.  Listening is, by necessity, hard work and should be viewed as such.


Fight past distractions: We all possess a particular style of speech - i.e. fast or slow, loud or soft, flowery language or bottom-line approaches.  Communication styles of others may serve to distract us - particularly if they are starkly different from our own or what we may have grown accustomed to.  Those who listen well fight past these distractions and zoom in on the central ideas. Depending upon the setting, this may mean finding authentic ways to keep the speaker on track.


Reserve judgment and reaction until comprehension is certain: How many times have you been interrupted and had your sentences finished, only to realize that the listener was either impatient, way off base - or both?  Listening requires patience and a desire to understand before offering judgment, opinions or even compassion.  


The more we develop this skill, the deeper and richer our personal and professional relationships will become.  Listening - on purpose - results in all upsides.


Be intentional about this putting this skill to practice this week and watch the positive results unfold!





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